This week, the film world lost director David R. Ellis. Of course, it’s sad when any one passes away regardless of how high caliber their work was. While cinephiles lament the loss of a filmmaker, many may be quick to ignore Ellis’ actual contribution to the film world upon a quick IMDB scan, branding his films as ‘schlock.’ Sure, Ellis didn’t direct anything on par with The 400 Blows, per say. But in my mind, the late director does have one masterpiece under his belt (two if you count the childhood-altering Homeward Bound 2: Lost In San Francisco): 2006’s cult classic Snakes On A Plane.
Anyone who’s casually watched the film on DVD may find such a claim to be insane. And I wouldn’t blame you for thinking such a thing. On its surface, Snakes On A Plane is a ridiculously silly action film in which Samuel L. Jackson kills a bunch of snakes on an airplane mid-flight. But there’s a fascinating story behind the film’s production that makes it stand out.
When the film’s first trailer hit the web, it became something of a viral hit. The very absurdity of the premise combined with the film’s comically blunt title was enough to intrigue b-movie fans. But throw in some truly absurd shots and Samuel L. Jackson and Ellis had a sensation on his hands. The practice of Internet junkies obsessing over so-bad-they’re-amazing trailers wasn’t new in 2006. But nobody could have foreseen the phenomenon that ensued.
A massive “fan” community sprouted in response to the film. The community brought hype to a new extreme, with some going as far as to create fan art and dream scripts for the project. Rather than brushing the somewhat mocking display off, Ellis and company did the opposite. They embraced it and started incorporating some of it into the script itself. Soon, the tongue-in-cheek excitement shifted, becoming entirely sincere. At first, Snakes On A Plane just looked like a preposterous Hollywood genre film taking itself way too seriously. But Ellis’ acceptance of the community made one thing clear; he was making the film that they wanted to see. In a show of cinematic selflessness, he threw his vision to the side and embraced the audience’s as his own. It was a move that transcended fan service.
Personally, I was right there with everyone. I remember sitting on a porch one cool summer’s night discussing my uncontained excitement with others. I remember gleefully watching interview with Samuel L. Jackson on The Daily Show right before release. I remember going into work and putting in a time request off form for the day after the midnight showing. Reason: “SNAKES ON A PLANE.” The request was filed months before the big day, even though the release could have shifted at any moment. This was the big cinematic event of my teenage life.
Sure enough, on August 17th, I didn’t miss a beat. My friends and I were at our friend Casey’s graduation party, sitting around an outdoor fire singing “Flagpole Sitta.” We were having a wonderful time, but as soon as the clock hit around 10:30, half of us piled into cars and shipped off to the movies. Unsurprisingly, the theater was filled with people just like us, unable to contain their excitement. Some brought plastic snakes and threw them around before the screening like confetti. It wasn’t so much a movie screening as a festival; a mass gathering to celebrate something dear to them.
Words don’t do the experience justice. When you attend a film like The Rocky Horror Picture Show, you’re usually aware of at least some of the ways the audience interacts with it. Snakes On A Plane had similar callbacks. The only difference was that nobody (save a few pirates) had ever seen this film. And yet, when the snake bomb in the film started ticking down, everyone in the theater screamed “THREE. TWO. ONE. SNAAAKES!” without any cue. I didn’t miss a beat, as if some cosmic power had propelled me to join the chorus.
And then came the big moment. As the film climbed into its third act, a dramatic close-up of Samuel L. Jackson filled the frame. A few audience members rose slowly to their feet, like flies gazing at the sublime beauty of a zapper. “Enough is enough!” Jackson screamed. The rest of the audience shot out of their seats. As one unit, we raised our voices to the heavens; “I HAVE HAD IT WITH THESE MOTHERFUCKING SNAKES ON THIS MOTHERFUCKING PLANE!” Everyone burst out into cheers and applause, howling at the screen with joy. I wanted to cry. This wasn’t a matter of going to a theater and clapping when the good guy kills the bad guy. This approached levels of spiritual transcendence. The theater became a holy site, where the audience came to worship the projector. And Samuel L. Jackson appeared before us as the face of God. No doubt, people came into the theater with problem-filled lives. Financial woes, heartbreak, death. But for an hour and 45 minutes, none of that mattered. It wasn’t mere cinematic escapism; it was entertainment as a genuine form of healing.
I’ve never quite been able to capture the same feelings as I did that night, but it certainly altered my perception of the movie theater. Perhaps that’s what why the 2012 Aurora theater shooting so deeply upset me. Just as I as I had in 2006, these people all came together to share in a similar experience. They came together in solidarity as fans of Nolan’s Batman films to have their souls cleansed by entertainment. In addition to the terrible loss of lives, the aftermath left a smaller lasting effect. The movie theater became a place of fear for many, wiping away its sacred element. Recently, when seeing Zero Dark Thirty in a packed crowd, I couldn’t help but glance over at people getting out of their seats to go to the bathroom, slightly nervous as my head ran through paranoid ‘what if’ scenarios. And every time I did, my heart sank knowing that I could no longer leave my worries at the door as I did during Ellis’ glorious film.
Perhaps cinema can’t save the world, though I sincerely want to believe it can. But David Ellis taught me that movies could be more than pure entertainment. And they didn’t necessarily have to be intellectually stimulating to do it either. Sometimes, a cinematic experience could be so satisfying that it could dig down to one’s emotional core and uproot the weeds infesting it. Even if just for one night. And that feeling came from a genre director’s goofy little action movie. That’s a life’s worth of accomplishment. May you rest in peace, Mr. Ellis.